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On the run in Burma

By Andrew Harding
BBC News, Rangoon

Buddhist monks may be able to protest in the streets of Burma, but other pro-democracy activists risk being labelled as "terrorists" and arrested by the authorities. Activist Nilar Thein has been on the run for one month.

Map of Burma
Rangoon is looking shabbier than usual these days. It is a damp, stagnant city trapped in a snaking curve of the Irawaddy river.

Ancient buses rattle past gloomy warehouses and bright pagodas. Grand colonial buildings green with moss back onto dark courtyards reeking of sewage and decay.

The generals who rule Burma moved out of the city last year, having built themselves a brand new - and spectacularly pointless - capital nine hours drive to the north. Thousands of frustrated civil servants were forced to follow them, almost overnight.

Since then, the authorities seem to have stopped paying for Rangoon's upkeep. And the trees now loom low over the avenues, patting the heads of passing cars.

Pro-democracy 'terrorists'

Today, somewhere in this city of nearly five million people, a Burmese woman called Nilar Thein is on the run.

Nilar and Jimmy with their daughter
Nilar Thein is number five on a long list of "terrorists" in Burma
She is 35, with a broad, open face, dark shoulder-length hair, and a reputation for extreme stubbornness.

She has been hiding for a month now - moving every couple of days to a new house - hunted by a huge force of security officials, plain-clothed policemen, informers and hired thugs.

Nilar is number five on a long list of "terrorists" - the generals' title for almost anyone who dares to challenge them.

They have already arrested her husband, Jimmy, and more than 100 other pro-democracy activists. No-one knows where they are being held, or what will happen to them.

The authorities stopped allowing the Red Cross to visit their jails, and more than 1,000 political prisoners, a couple of years ago.

Used as bait

Nilar and Jimmy lived in a small second floor apartment in the north of Rangoon. Not too far from the house where Burma's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is still being kept under house arrest.

Nay Kyi, or Sunshine.
Nilar's five month baby, Sunshine, is left with her grandmother
Their apartment is now guarded by plain-clothed policemen. Two at the door. Two outside. Two across the road. They are waiting to see if Nilar will come back for something rather precious - her five-month-old daughter, Nay Kyi, or Sunshine.

Nilar took the child with her at first. But Sunshine's cries were in danger of giving them both away. Now Jimmy's elderly mother is looking after her.

One night recently, Nilar sneaked back close enough to hear her baby crying through an open window.

"They are using her as bait," she said. "I should be breast feeding her. But I cannot give in."

She is, a friend told me admiringly, a stubborn woman.

88 Student Generation

Nilar and Jimmy are members of what is known as the 88 Student Generation, a reference to the last major uprising against the military here back in 1988.

They have both spent time in jail already. Nilar nine years, Jimmy 16. They both thought hard about whether to have a child at all, given their particular "lifestyles".

And now Rangoon is swirling with rumours that Jimmy's dead - tortured and killed in prison. The rumours are probably not true. Maybe they have been spread deliberately, to get Nilar to give up.

More likely they are just a product of the silence that festers here, in the absence of any independent news.

The newspapers in Rangoon are all tightly controlled. No pictures about monks demonstrating this week. Instead there are photos of the generals giving lavish gifts to monasteries.

Inside are venomous editorials - styled, it seems, on the North Korean model - lashing out at traitors within, and devious foreign enemies.

Sense of paranoia

I read the papers over breakfast, then stepped out of the hotel wrapped in a cloud of paranoia. Surely the authorities have spotted the foreign journalist. Why is that man watching me from the cafe over the road? Did this taxi driver just happen to be driving past at the right time?

There is good reason to be wary. On the phone, diplomats and activists here talk carefully - no names, no details. Rangoon slang. In the past few weeks, hundreds of mobile phones have been cut off by the authorities.

The police write down the number plates of cars on certain roads. Informers watch every street corner. E-mail is restricted too - Yahoo and Gmail accounts are often blocked.

Well, half blocked.

For all the security and the fear, this is not a competently-run country. And it is not China.

Hotels and internet cafes use dozens of proxy servers to bypass the government's crude attempts to police the internet.

Public protests

Buddhist monks in Burma
Buddhist monks marched through the streets of Rangoon in protest
And that is why footage of the latest protests here - of the thugs beating up demonstrators and of hundreds of monks marching through Rangoon - is leaking out to the world.

The protests seem to have caught everyone by surprise. Certainly, almost no-one expected them to gain such momentum.

They were triggered by the government's unannounced, overnight decision to slash fuel subsidies. Isolated in their new capital, the generals either did not know or care what impact this would have. Suddenly millions of people could not afford the bus home, or to school.

So, how will the thieves react to this extraordinarily public humiliation? Will they crack down like in 1988, or sit back and wait for fear to do its job?

There are 400,000 monks in Burma. The fact is that so far, most have not taken to the streets. Sitting quietly in his monastery, an older monk explained to me that everyone is born afraid here - and the army will never run out of bullets.

Hoping for change

Something has changed this week in Burma. Perhaps something profound.

But there is a lot of wishful thinking going on too. It is so tempting to imagine a velvet revolution. Nilar Thein and Jimmy reunited with their baby daughter. Aung San Suu Kyi walking calmly out of prison, her uncompromising stance finally vindicated after years of isolation.

But the odds are still not good. The generals have their own version of reality - their surreal capital, their shiny new constitution. Their plans for carefully supervised elections later in the year.

Somewhere in the backstreets of Rangoon, Nilar Thein is sitting alone and alert, waiting for the wrong sort of knock at the door. Hope is keeping her going. But in Burma, hope hurts.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 22 September 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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